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Old records are piling up in Kentucky courthouses

LAWRENCEBURG — Only a few shelves are empty in one of Anderson County's two cramped records vaults. Both sides of a nearby hallway are crowded with filing cabinets, leaving a narrow path to get by.

Boxes crammed with legal records, from routine traffic tickets to complicated divorce proceedings and felonies, are mounting. And with an increasing court docket, the situation isn't easing up.

"We're an old courthouse," said Jan Rogers, Anderson County's circuit court clerk. "We have maximized every inch of space that we can use."

It's becoming an increasingly familiar scene throughout Kentucky as court officials look for an answer on how to properly save and protect official court records. For nearly 18 months, court officials across Kentucky have been under a moratorium from destroying any court records.

That means all paperwork for traffic violations, felonies and misdemeanors.

Everything.

The issue erupted nearly two years ago, after judges and prosecutors in Jefferson County were upset by the destruction of thousands of misdemeanor and traffic records that were 5 years old or older. An amendment to state policy allowed for the destruction of electronic records.

Court records haven't been destroyed since the Administrative Office of the Courts announced a moratorium in April 2007. Now, a commission set up by Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton Jr. and made up of court officials from across the state is studying exactly what records should be kept, and how.

With a steadily increasing court docket across the state, files are brimming and space is shrinking.

The issue is how to properly and efficiently preserve records that defendants or prosecutors might one day need, without running out of space, Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Wine, who is heading up the records retention group, said. Previously, all records were kept on a staggered schedule with different retention periods before they were destroyed.

Misdemeanor records, for example, were kept five years before being destroyed. Some others were archived indefinitely. Traffic tickets alone generate about 400,000 records per year, Wine said.

It's not a simple question.

Officials are looking at keeping certain records longer.

Someone with a past criminal record that gets expunged might need a court record for a future employer, Wine said. Prosecutors might want to see whether a defendant has a criminal history, possibly warranting enhanced penalties, he said.

"If you've got a court record, we want to make sure that we're keeping what's necessary for effective prosecution and effective public safety," Wine said. "Until then, they're just sitting there stacking up on floors and taking up shelf space."

The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives houses more than 33,000 cubic feet of court records. That costs more than $150,000 per year. Nearly 28,500 cubic feet of those records are permanent and cannot be destroyed, while about 5,000 cubic feet would have been destroyed if the order against destruction was not in place, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Franklin County Circuit Court Clerk Sally Jump, whose court handles most cases involving state government, said storage space for court records was virtually gone. But they've begun a new system of rotating cases that are on appeal, and files are stored on every floor of the courthouse, Jump said.

"From a historical standpoint they're all worth something to someone," Jump said. "We're just kind of stuck."

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